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Less if Best - The Right Way to Fuel


By Steve Born

 
Steve Born, Hammer Nutrition's Fueling Expert
Steve Born
Steve's decade-plus of involvement in the sports nutrition industry, as well as nearly 15 years of independent research in nutritional fueling and supplementation, has given him unmatched familiarity with the myriad product choices available to athletes.
 

This is the keynote article on what constitutes proper fluid, calorie, and electrolyte intake during exercise. Our scientifically and experientially established position is this: replenish your body with what it can comfortably accept instead of trying to replace what your body expends. You must calculate your fluid, calorie, and electrolyte intake in accord with your body's intake mechanisms, and not according to its output. If you follow this principle, you will greatly reduce or entirely avoid bloating, cramping, nausea, vomiting, diarrhea, and bonking. Fueling your body in a way that works with it, and not against it, not only feels better, it also yields higher quality workouts and improved race results.

Two analogies will help us understand faulty fueling: a barrel and gas tank. Imagine a barrel of water with a tap at the bottom. Open the tap and stick a hose in the top of the barrel, filling it at the same rate that the water flows out the bottom. The input replaces the output. That works fine for a barrel, but our bodies are far more complicated than barrels. The water we drink doesn't go directly to our pores to provide sweat to cool us. Carbohydrates don't go straight down our esophagus to our muscles to provide energy. Instead, we have complex mechanisms that transport, distribute, break down, store, retrieve, and utilize the water and nutrients that we consume. It's impossible just to plug in a hose and re-supply at the rate we expend nutrients and water. If we try to refuel thinking that our body is like a barrel, and all we need to do is measure what comes out the tap and then adjust the input hose accordingly, we'll soon be in big trouble. We'll get oversupplied, disrupt our internal systems, and suffer physiological and performance consequence that range from merely uncomfortable nuisances, like stopping often to pee, to the rare, but fatal case of extreme water intoxication.

Two analogies will help us understand faulty fueling: a barrel and gas tank. Imagine a barrel of water with a tap at the bottom. Open the tap and stick a hose in the top of the barrel, filling it at the same rate that the water flows out the bottom. The input replaces the output. That works fine for a barrel, but our bodies are far more complicated than barrels. The water we drink doesn't go directly to our pores to provide sweat to cool us. Carbohydrates don't go straight down our esophagus to our muscles to provide energy. Instead, we have complex mechanisms that transport, distribute, break down, store, retrieve, and utilize the water and nutrients that we consume. It's impossible just to plug in a hose and re-supply at the rate we expend nutrients and water. If we try to refuel thinking that our body is like a barrel, and all we need to do is measure what comes out the tap and then adjust the input hose accordingly, we'll soon be in big trouble. We'll get oversupplied, disrupt our internal systems, and suffer physiological and performance consequence that range from merely uncomfortable nuisances, like stopping often to pee, to the rare, but fatal case of extreme water intoxication.

The second way to picture faulty fueling is the gas tank analogy. Your car has a gas tank that stores enough gas to run the engine for many hours. You can refill in a few minutes, and you're set for another several hours of drive time. Some people try to fuel this way, but the human body does not come equipped with an internal fuel tank. We do have some storage capacity, such as muscle glycogen and body fluids, but we can't slug down 500 calories and a liter of water in a few minutes and think that we're good for an hour or more of exercise. Our tanks must be external (e.g., water bottles) and we must adjust our intake to our body's intake capacity. We can only re-supply as much as we can process at one time, and that means the right amounts at the right time.

In my first RAAM (1988), I found out what happens when one ignores the complex physiology of the magnificent organism that is the human body. I learned the hard way that we cannot come anywhere near to replacing the amounts of fluids, calories, and salt/electrolytes that we expend during intense exercise. Like so many athletes then and now, I fueled my body under the belief that since I was losing "X" amount per hour I needed to consume "X", or I'd bonk. What I didn't take into account - and this is the sad truth with so many athletes today - is that the human body knows that it can't effectively replace the full amount of what it loses right away and that it has numerous built-in mechanisms that make up for the shortfall.

Somehow, I did finish the cross-country race, but trust me, I spent most of the time in miserable discomfort. My crew, dutifully following my demands, gorged me with ridiculous amounts of calories and bloated me with excessive fluids. Common sense might have told me to back off, but stubbornness and the mental numbness of round the clock cycling kept me on the same insane regimen. Thinking I was doing the right thing, I adhered to my plan for the majority of the race. Stomach distress, bloating, and nausea? This was RAAM, where self-inflicted misery is par for the coast-to-coast course. I felt sick to my stomach most of the time, and I gained so much water weight (due to my large salt intake) that my belly darn near touched the top tube when I was down on the drops. That's some serious bloating! My inept fueling protocol was the culprit for all of these maladies.

Your body is extraordinarily designed and knows how to regulate itself when it comes to fueling. During prolonged exercise it does need your help, but you must cooperate with your body's innate survival mechanisms. Give your body "a helping hand" by providing it with what it can effectively assimilate (instead of trying to replace everything it's losing), and I absolutely guarantee that you will feel better during exercise and enjoy dramatic performance improvements.


We at Hammer Nutrition consistently deal with many fueling myths, and I'd rate the "replace what you lose" approach as probably the worst offender of all. Many organizations and alleged experts continue to recommend that athletes need to replace what they expend during exercise in equal or near-equal amounts, hour after hour. They cite data such as "you lose up to two grams of sodium per hour, burn up to 900 calories hourly, and sweat up to two liters an hour" to defend their position. Even worse, sometimes they don't give any numeric guidelines, just vague statements like "take salt tablets" or "drink as much as you can." Sadly, far too many athletes fuel their bodies exactly this way, and they get only poorer-than-expected results or a DNF to show for their efforts.

The figures that the "replacement" proponents cite are often valid: a vigorously exercising athlete, especially a big guy, can really expend significant amounts of fluids, calories, and sodium. We don't argue at all with most expenditure figures. However, expenditure just isn't the appropriate measure to guide your fueling. The best guideline is what you can effectively assimilate. Don't go by what you burn/lose, but rather what the body can reasonably absorb and process during any given period of time.

Two statements from Dr. Bill Misner represent our position on what proper fueling is all about:

To suggest that fluids, sodium, and fuels-induced glycogen replenishment can happen at the same rate as it is spent during exercise is simply not true. Endurance exercise beyond 1-2 hours is a deficit spending entity, with proportionate return or replenishment always in arrears. The endurance exercise outcome is to postpone fatigue, not to replace all the fuel, fluids, and electrolytes lost during the event. It can't be done, though many of us have tried.

The human body has so many survival safeguards by which it regulates living one more minute, that when we try too hard to fulfill all its needs we interfere, doing more harm than good.

What this means is that the body cannot replace fluids and nutrients at the same rate it depletes them. Yes, the body needs your assistance in replenishing what it loses, but that donation must be in amounts that cooperate with normal body mechanisms, not in amounts that override them. Here's an important fact to keep in mind: at an easy aerobic pace, the metabolic rate increases 1200-2000% over the sedentary state. As a result, the body goes into "survival mode," where blood volume is routed to working muscles, fluids are used for evaporative cooling mechanisms, and oxygen is routed to the brain, heart, and other internal organisms. With all this going on, your body isn't terribly interested in handling large quantities of calories, fluids, and electrolytes; its priorities lie elsewhere.

Your body already "knows" it is unable to immediately replenish calories, fluids, and electrolytes at the same rate it uses/loses them, and it has the ability to effectively deal with this issue. That's why we don't recommend trying to replace hourly losses of calories, fluids, and electrolytes with loss amounts. Instead, we recommend smaller replenishment amounts that cooperate with normal body mechanisms. We'll discuss this in more detail later in the article.

Fueling variability among athletes

Over the course of over two decades, we've had the opportunity to observe the fueling habits (consumption of fluids, calories, and electrolytes) of thousands of athletes. Needless to say, these fueling protocols have varied tremendously. Here are some of the variations we have observed:

ELECTROLYTES: The female winner of a past Leadville 100 mile ultramarathon won the event by over an hour (beating most of the men as well) consuming only one Endurolytes capsule per hour. Her electrolyte profile (done via blood labs) taken before the event was remarkably the same after the event. At the other end of the scale, one triathlete client of ours regularly consumes up to eight Endurolytes per hour in his iron distance triathlons. At six Endurolytes per hour, which is an upper-end dose for most athletes, he cramps or has gastric upset.

FLUIDS: Fluid intake with the athletes we've observed ranges from 355 - 1200 ml per hour.

CALORIES: Calorie intake also varies considerably, with intakes ranging from 200-700 calories per hour.

With that in mind, of the athletes who have contacted us to report success (no fuel-related, performance-inhibiting problems and consistent energy levels), the following data occur with reliable consistency:

  • Fluid intake was under 880 ml/hour.
  • Electrolyte intake was between 3-6 capsules/hr, with 4 capsules/hr being the most often reported dose.
  • Energy intake was at 300 cal/hr or less.
  • Body weight at finish decreased about 2-3%.

Athletes who suffered poor performance due to fueling-related problems reported consumption as follows:

  • Fluid intake was almost always over 800 ml/hour.
  • Body weight at finish was hyper-hydrated with weight gain from 1-2%, or dehydrated at over 3% body weight loss.
  • These athletes consumed excess calories, >300 cal/hr, primarily from simple sugared-based fuels, causing stomach shutdown.
  • These athletes had high sodium diets. Those who consume that type of diet are predisposed to higher sodium intake during an event than the low sodium purist.
  • Ultra distance athletes who suffered cramps, sour stomach, malaise, and/or hyponatremia in the last half of their event often did not train adequately at race-level fluid/fuel/electrolyte dosing, or the athlete used a different fueling protocol than in training. Athletes need to not only train appropriately leading up to their race, they also must test, evaluate, and fine-tune their fueling plan in training prior to using it in a race.

What you should derive from all of this is that while there is no "one size fits all" fueling formula, there are some good guidelines in terms of what has been shown to be successful for athletes and also consistent observations (read: fueling errors) noted from athletes who had unsuccessful races.

What does research show regarding replenishment?

This is a suggested comparison showing approximated upper values for what is lost during prolonged endurance exercise to what can be successfully absorbed, replaced, and routed into the energy cycle for the majority of fit, acclimatized endurance athletes:

SUBSTANCE RATE LOSS/hr ASSIMILATION RATE
Fluids (ml) 1000-3000 (30-90 oz) 500-830 (17-28 oz)
Sodium (mg) 2000 500-700
Fuel (carb cell) 700-900 240-280

Below are the corresponding replenishment values that we have observed for the majority of fit, acclimatized endurance athletes (+/-5%):

SUBSTANCE IDEAL REPLENISHMENT
Fluids 20-33%
Sodium 20-35%
Fuels (Calories) 30-40%

This material was extracted from the following literature:

  • Noakes T.D., 2003, Lore of Running. Leisure Press. Champaign Illinois. Pages 768-770 29 published and unpublished papers cited on fuels, fluids, electrolyte issues during endurance exercise.
  • Moodley D. et al., 1992, Exogenous carbohydrate oxidation during prolonged exercise. The effect of carbohydrate type and solution concentration. Unpublished manuscript in #1 above.
  • Sweat Composition in Exercise and Heat. Verde T, Shephard RJ, Corey P, Moore R, 1982, J Appl Phys 53(6) 1541-1542.
  • Sweating: Its composition and effects on body fluids. Costill DL, 1977 & 1982, Annals of the New York Academy of Sciences, 301, p.162.
  • American Dietetics Association Position Statement
  • American College of Sports Medicine Position Statement

As you can see, there is a tremendous difference between what is lost and what can effectively be replenished during exercise. For calories, on average only 30-40% of what is utilized ("burned") can be efficiently replenished. On average, fluids are replenished at a rate of only 20-33% of what is spent, and sodium 20-35%. What's important to keep in mind is that the body is keenly sensitive to this, recognizing its inability to replenish what it loses at anywhere near the rate that it's losing it.

For example, body fat stores satisfy upwards of two-thirds of energy requirements, very easily making up the difference between what is burned and what the body can accept in replenishment. For most athletes, calorie oxidation rate and gastric absorption rate typically allow for no more than 300 calories per hour to be consumed for successful gastric absorption to energy transfer. Consuming greater than 300 cal/hr increases potential for a number of stomach/digestive distress issues.

In regards to body fluid volume and serum sodium concentration, both are controlled to a degree by hormone pathways between the brain and internal organs. As Dr. Misner stated, the body has remarkably complex and efficient "built-in" survival safeguards that very capably deal with the difference between what it loses and what it can accept in replenishment. The various systems involved are complex, but the bottom line is that only a relatively small consumption will keep you going. On the other hand, over-consumption can easily throw the systems out of whack.

This is why we are so adamant about the "less is best" way of fueling. For example, if you err on the "not enough" side in regards to calories that's a very easy problem to fix  you simply consume more calories. However, if you over-supply your body with too many calories that's a much harder (and longer) problem to resolve (at the very least you'll have to deal with an upset stomach for quite awhile). The simple truth is that once excess amounts of calories, fluids, and/or sodium are in your body they're not coming out, at least not the way that you want them to!

Bottom line? Over-supplying your body will absolutely not enhance athletic performance but will most definitely inhibit-to-ruin it.

Our basic recommendations and summary

Based on what science has shown us, plus two decades of working with athletes, we have determined the following ranges as ideal for most athletes the majority of the time for maintaining optimum exercise performance:

  • Fluids: 600 - 750 ml hourly
  • Sodium chloride (salt) in a balanced formula with other electrolytic minerals: 300-600 mg hourly (3-6 Endurolytes)
  • Calories: 240-280 calories hourly

Keep in mind that these figures are for the average size athlete, one weighing approximately 165 lbs/75 kg. It therefore goes without saying that there are many individual variations that you will need to consider (age, weight, training/racing stress, fitness, acclimatization levels, weather conditions) to determine what works best for you. Some athletes will need less than these suggested amounts, a handful slightly more. Certain circumstances require flexibility. For instance, hot weather and high-impact exercise, such as the run portion of a long-distance triathlon. Hot weather usually means lower hourly calorie intake, a slightly higher fluid intake, and an increased electrolyte intake. High impact exercise such as running does better with roughly 30%-50% lower caloric intake per hour than what you'd consume during a less jarring exercise such as cycling.

All this said, the above-listed figures make good starting points for determining your ideal intakes for varying conditions and circumstances.

We have been advocating the "less is best" recommendation for a number of years. Sadly, many athletes continue to listen to "consume what you lose" propaganda, arguing that nutrients and water need to be replaced immediately. This simply is neither true nor possible; fluids, calories, and electrolytes cannot be replaced 100%, or even 50%. As a result of following this flawed advice, athletes continue to experience cramping, vomiting, gastric distress, diarrhea, and other problems. The safe rule of thumb is to replenish at about one-third of loss values, obviously adjusting as conditions dictate.

As you read through our other fueling-related articles, you'll see this principle applied repeatedly and further details given. It might seem like we're banging the same drum all the time, but when it comes to fueling, we cannot emphasize enough that less is better than more. Rather than attempting to resolve your fueling requirements by replacing hourly loss with hourly intake, we suggest small doses, generally about a third of what is lost, if not lower. In conjunction with longstanding research regarding this subject, over two decades of successful experience with athletes testifies to the reliability of the "less is best" and "fuel in cooperation with your body" concepts of fueling. Yes, there are people who can complete events on high intakes of fluids, calories, and electrolytes, but the overwhelming majority of athletes are impaired or stopped by such fueling protocols. Athletes who do use less see their fueling-related problems end and their performance improve dramatically.

That's why our battle cry is "Less is Best!" Remember, the goal of fueling is NOT to see how much you can consume and get away with before your body rebels, you end up getting sick, and your performance goes in the tank. Proper fueling is consuming the least amount necessary to keep your body doing what you want it to do hour after hour. And if you do err on the "not enough" side, that's a lot easier problem to resolve than an "uh oh, I overdid it" problem. We're pretty darn sure once you get away from those 500-700 calorie and liter-an-hour regimens, your body will perform much better, you'll feel better, and you'll get the results you trained so hard for.


Steve Born is a technical advisor for Hammer Nutrition with well over a decade of involvement in the health food industry. He has worked with hundreds of athletes - ranging from the recreational athlete to world-class professional athlete - helping them to optimize their supplement/fueling program. Steve is a three-time RAAM finisher, the 1994 Furnace Creek 508 Champion, 1999 runner-up, the only cyclist in history to complete a Double Furnace Creek 508, and is the holder of two Ultra Marathon Cycling records. In February 2004 Steve was inducted into the Ultra Marathon Cycling Hall of Fame.

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